Last night on my show, former Governor Gary Locke unequivocally stated his opposition to building another elevated freeway to replace the aging Alaska Way Viaduct… and he said former Governors Rosellini, Evans and Lowry were firmly with him. (Gov. Spellman is apparently neutral.) Gov. Locke went on to say that while he enthusiastically supports the current “Tunnel-Lite” proposal, and believes the financing is in place to build it, he would back a surface-plus-transit option over a rebuild should voters reject the tunnel on March 13. The overwhelming priority for voters in the upcoming special election, Gov. Locke repeated several times, is to vote “No” on the rebuild.
Personally, I tend to agree with King County Executive Ron Sims, who last week on my show stated that Mayor Nickels’ tunnel proposal is politically dead. But what do we know? It is very clear that Gov. Chris Gregoire, Speaker of the House Frank Chopp and a handful of vocal legislators adamantly oppose a tunnel, and it is hard to imagine them backing down. But the pro-tunnel forces contain some heavy hitters and experienced politicos, so it may be too early to count them out.
What I find most striking though is the growing number of high profile political, civic and business leaders who are willing to publicly lend their credibility towards the notion that a surface-plus-transit option is not only a reasonable and serious alternative, but preferable to a rebuild. The pro-rebuild/anti-surface camp tends to brush off surface supporters as a bunch of crazy, car-hating hippies or something like that, but that’s a pretty dismissive way to describe Gov. Locke, Executive Sims and a substantial chunk of our political and business establishment. While wealthy developer (and deadbeat) Martin Selig may support a rebuild/retrofit campaign, Gov. Locke insists that many of Selig’s tenants do not. Indeed, Gov. Locke claims that the majority of businesses who would be most impacted by waterfront redevelopment are willing to tax themselves hundreds of millions of dollars via a special improvement district to help pay the cost of a tunnel. (A funding mechanism I first floated way back in November of 2005.)
I fully understand that some of our state Democratic leaders see a political upside to shoving another elevated structure down our throats: that voters elsewhere in the state will view them as finally standing up to us Seattle bullies. But I sincerely hope that such a base (and ultimately self-defeating) political motivation does not overwhelm the decision-making process should Seattle voters reject a rebuild on March 13. The final decision shouldn’t pivot on a political battle between Seattle and Olympia or between Nickels and Gregoire; it should be based on what is best for Seattle and the state. But for such an objective debate to occur, the pro-rebuild forces must actively disown the politically convenient misconception that Seattle is somehow demanding the rest of the state to pay for its “gold-plated tunnel.”
The state has committed $2.8 billion towards replacing the Viaduct. Assuming WSDOT’s cost estimates are correct, that is exactly what it will cost state taxpayers to build a new elevated structure. But if the city chooses the more expensive tunnel alternative, nobody expects the state to cough up additional funds. The tunnel will not cost state taxpayers a dime more than the $2.8 billion already committed… indeed, if the city opts for a cheaper surface-plus-transit alternative, it will save state taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars!
I find it ironic that there are state legislators — Democrats no less — who are willing to pass a state law requiring Seattle voters to tax themselves to build a new Sonics arena we’ve already rejected at the polls… while at the same time refusing to let us tax ourselves to build the Viaduct replacement alternative the city wants.
This is our city, this is our waterfront, and the Viaduct overwhelmingly carries our traffic. If we choose to raise the money locally to pay the difference between a rebuild and a tunnel, that should be our choice. And if instead we opt to let go of our 1950’s mentality and re-imagine the way we address transportation and transit issues, we should be given every opportunity to make the case that a less expensive, less auto-centric surface-plus-transit alternative is the right solution for our city.